Marine Mammal Trainer Kristyn Plancarte is standing in the Aquarium’s newest exhibit space – the Research Outpost – with a cooler of clams, mussels and squid in hand. She asks Balzak to come out of the water and join her in the research space. Nearby in the procedure room, marine mammal trainers and veterinary technicians are bustling around, situating monitoring screens, filling syringes with dental adhesives, and clearing space for the massive wheeled transport trolley that would serve as an examination table for the 400-kilogram walrus. In the centre of the room stands veterinary dentist Dr. Loïc Legendre, wearing a burgundy t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Got teeth?” He is reviewing the plan for the morning’s procedure with the Aquarium’s head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena. It’s not every day Dr. Legendre caps a walrus’ tusks.

Walrus Balzak is about to get a silver-tipped tusk for protection.

In the ocean, walruses pull themselves out of the water by planting their tusks on rocky or icy shorelines and, given the substantial size of these animals, tusks get a lot of wear and tear. This can result in an exposed pulp cavity which can lead to a serious infection or worse. When Balzak and Lakina arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium in December 2017 from Aquarium du Québec, they were just shy of two years old. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Legendre capped both Balzak’s and Lakina’s tusks with crowns made from chrome cobalt as a preventative measure to protect their tusks from such wear and tear.

Balzak and Lakina aren’t the only animals at the Aquarium who get their teeth checked by Dr. Legendre. He has cared for Steller sea lions, Northern fur seals and harbour seals, sea otters, and other marine mammals. Twelve years earlier, a beloved male Steller sea lion named Tag was diagnosed with oral cancer, and Dr. Haulena called Dr. Legendre for advice. During the next two years, the two vets worked closely to manage Tag’s cancer, providing intensive care and keeping him comfortable until his death in 2008. Caring for Tag was challenging yet rewarding, Dr. Legendre says. “It was all big surgeries, and nobody [had] done it before, so we had to improvise a lot. We learned so much from Tag.”

Tusk-capping helps prevent the walrus tusk from harder surfaces inside the Aquarium habitat.

Performing dentistry on marine mammals is often ground-breaking work. Because the standard dentistry techniques have rarely been applied to marine mammals, Dr. Legendre and Dr. Haulena modify them for each species and improvise when necessary. Sometimes they operate on animals that have experienced terrible trauma. Walter was rescued several years ago after being shot in the face, leaving him blind. After multiple surgeries, that included a root canal, extracting three teeth and removing shrapnel, Walter happily lived out his final years at the Aquarium.

Dr. Martin Haulena and Dr. Loic Legendre in mid-tusk-capping.

It takes longer for the patient to lie down than it takes Dr. Legendre to cap his tusk. During the procedure, two veterinary technicians follow Balzak’s heart rate via electrocardiography sensors on his skin and temperature via rectal thermometer. Another technician calls out “breath” each time Balzak takes a massive lungful of air; and another technician takes note on the procedure log. And now, as people are removing rubber gloves and tidying the room, trainer Kristyn  stays close by, speaking softy to Balzak until he blinks open his eyes.

The new crowns should last for a while before they need to be replaced again for added protection.

Vanessa Minke-Martin is a biologist, environmental educator, and friend to the salmon, who teaches with the Redfish School of Change


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